Today one of my students told me she wanted to change. She said she worries too much about what others think of her and this makes her anxious and ruins her day. At the time I offered some ad hoc thoughts but now, having had time to think about it, I want to write down my non-ad hoc thoughts.
Firstly I’m not convinced that it is possible to intentionally change yourself. If I have ever changed it was because change happened to me rather than me changing myself. Whenever I have decided to try to change myself the resolution never lasted long. My conscious self seems to have very limited control over the my unconscious self. It can probably guide things in a certain direction but when I’m tired or stressed or annoyed then I just revert to type and act naturally. Even if my will were stronger than it is, I’m not sure I’d want to construct a newer, better me. The whole project just seems too contrived, too intentional.
Trying to change yourself also involves monitoring yourself and my student told me she already does this too much. This is part of her problem. So probably best just to run on auto-pilot and skip the idea of change. Self-monitoring is the last thing someone who worries about themselves should do.
Yet I do see her point. Social anxiety is unpleasant and it’s natural to want to lessen it, especially if it is ruining your day. It’s just that trying not to care probably doesn’t work.
But what if it did work and she was able to care less what others thought of her? She might find she had become like the fool in the Beatles’ song ‘Hey Jude’?:
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
As things are, she isn’t cool and her world isn’t cold. Apart from that it seems only right and natural that a social animal like humans aren’t indifferent to how we are perceived – though some people pretend that are. Wishing you didn’t care is like wishing you were a different animal; an asocial bear, perhaps. Not caring what others think strikes me as being a bit sociopathic, like something human is missing.
Maybe it’s all a question of balance and my student feels she has the balance wrong. Even so, if she tweaks her personality here she might find she has unintentionally reduced a good trait over there. Everything is interrelated in a complex way. It’s like that game of Whack-a-mole: you hit one mole only for another to pop up somewhere else. My student probably couldn’t become more indifferent to others’ opinions without at the same time losing some of her charm.
I suppose she could take Nike’s advice and ‘just do it’, meaning she should just act spontaneously without reflection. Alternatively she could just accept the fact that she does care what others think. Acceptance largely solves the problem of being in two minds; one mind caring what others are think and the other trying not to care. If you just accept that you care too much the conflict goes away.
The more I think about her the more I suspect it is just a normal stage in her development. To me she actually appears less socially anxious than most of her peers. She is perhaps mistaking a normal amount of social anxiety for some personality weakness peculiar to her. If she just waits a couple of years her anxiety levels will probably drop all by themselves. And perhaps you first have to indulge your daft infatuations before you can truly leave them behind.
So do I now wish I had said all this to her? Not really. Unlike my views on the awfulness of progressive liberalism, the daftness of the cult of diversity and the idiocy of Black Lives Matter, my views on topics such as social anxiety change with the weather. Consequently I’m in no hurry to fill a young person’s head with what could be drivel.
Two months later
I’ve slightly changed my mind. Being too worried about what others think is a bad thing. I’ve noticed that the things I think about are also the things I care about and vice versa. While I can’t order myself to stop caring I can stop myself thinking about certain things. For example, at the end of last season I stopped thinking about Leicester City. When the new season commenced I just didn’t get back into the habit of following their results or thinking about them. I could have done but I didn’t. Now I have stopped caring about how they are doing. I think you can do the same with pretty much everything. If your lover dumps you, stop thinking about her and think about someone else. If you think too much about what others think of you, get out of that habit and think about English history instead. Or whether we do or don’t have free will. Or whether Donald Trump will make a good president. The reduction in time spent thinking about a thing probably leads to a corresponding reduction in how much you care about it.